NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 6, 2013

A family paddle

Exploring a hidden gem: Amesbury's Meadowbrook Islands

Outdoorsing the North Shore
Justin Chase

---- — As winter begins, our North Shore waterways are slowing and becoming shallow as they do — it’s fascinating and beautiful to watch.

Taking advantage of an unusually mild day offering bright sun and a gentle breeze from the southwest, my wife and I brought our boys on a canoeing trip to Amesbury’s Meadowbrook Islands. It was a gorgeous place where we enjoyed an excellent afternoon of paddling, splashing and learning. One made even better by a family picnic on an island all to ourselves.

Our adventure on Meadowbrook Pond proved perfect for reinforcing to the kids just how dynamic our local lakes and rivers really are. The pond sits in the northwest corner of Amesbury, and at just over a mile long, it’s an integral part of the city’s vast network of waterways that ultimately drain to the Merrimack River. Featuring loads of wildlife, mostly undeveloped shores and three beautifully untouched islands, it’s a true hidden gem.

We launched our canoes off Birchmeadow Road near the dam that separates Meadowbrook Pond from the larger Lake Attitash. Offering the kids a chance to do it themselves, we watched as they pushed, pulled and heaved the boats successfully toward the shore. After just a few minutes (and some help from Dad), they had done it and we were on our way. The water was nearly flat and reflected muted colors from the nearby icy shore. Crisp oak leaves floated around us like paper boats; starlings flew overhead and into bare trees; and nearby ducks cautiously swam away from our excited, noisy boys.

Paddling toward the islands, we made our way over a few remaining water lilies, floating yellow and lifelessly on the surface. We talked of frogs, hibernation and how everything in nature seems to know the schedule of everything else and how it all works out great. Next spring, the lilies and the frogs will wake up together, and it’s really pretty cool.

After swerving and splashing our way up the long and narrow pond, we arrived at the east side of the islands, where a couple of young swans patrolled. Their bright white feathers and quiet grace stood out boldly against a nearby flock of darker, honking Canada geese.

Our boats rubbed the bottom in the shallow water as we broke through sheets of the season’s first ice that lined the islands’ shores. We chopped at it with our paddles and marveled at its newness. Soon, it will be old news, but as with every season change, each first is something to lament and something to savor. Unable to reach the island through the ice, we took the opportunity to teach our kids of the sun’s position and effect by paddling around to the west shore, where the sun has greater exposure.

There, with plenty of sunlit water and soft mud, we easily landed our canoes. The island was filled with tall oaks and shorter, scrubbier swamp maples. Bright red winter berries lined the shores, adding flair to golden brown grasses and gray, leafless limbs. We were only a half-mile from our start, but it felt worlds away.

We gathered our lunch and blanket and hiked into the brush in search of a clearing. It was picnic time! About 100 yards in, we laid our blanket over a soft bed of leaves and enjoyed a five-star lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with hot apple cider.

The time we spent together, in the privacy of such a uniquely secluded spot, is one I’ll long remember. I sat with my wife, watching our boys discover swan beds, trees chewed by beavers and the many red berries that lined the sunny side of the island. Equally interesting for us was watching the boys explore thorns, thickets and mud, of which there was plenty.

Paddling back from the islands, fish darted and rippled the cold water ahead of us. Herons soared gracefully nearby while cawing out loudly an equally ungraceful noise. There was still signs of life all around. The water was lower, darker and considerably colder. Soon, it will be completely iced over, but soon, too, it will be filled to the brim with midsummer water lilies, frogs and darting dragonflies.

Getting out onto the water in late fall or early winter offers firsthand experience of the beauty and cyclicity of our seasons. The calendar tells us that we are at the end of the year, but a short trip out with my boys showed them it is just another part of the cycle — Meadowbrook Pond is already busy prepping for spring. Should another unseasonably warm day come our way, we’ll be sure to take advantage.

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Justin Chase is an avid naturalist who lives in Amesbury and grew up in Newburyport. He is the author of the blog Outdoors, By Cracky! Visit his website at www.outdoorsbycracky.com or contact him via email at justin@outdoorsbycracky.com.